Fiji - Cyclone death toll hits 29

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Suva, Feb 23: The death toll from Fiji's super-cyclone hit 29 today, with officials saying the Pacific nation's recovery from the devastating storm could take months.

As aid efforts intensified, communications were established with some of the worst-hit remote communities, revealing the scale of the disaster. "The official death toll now is 29, another eight bodies were found on the island of Koro since yesterday," government spokesman Ewan Perrin told Radio New Zealand in a phone interview. "We are expecting it to rise but we're hoping it's going to rise by a very small number." Severe tropical cyclone Winston, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, lashed the island nation overnight Saturday, packing wind gusts of 325 kilometres (202 miles) per hour and leaving a trail of destruction. About 8,500 people are still sheltering in evacuation centres and Perrin said some villages had hardly any buildings still standing.

"We're still trying to get people on the ground in these areas to do a detailed assessment of the damage. We're just taking it day-by day," he said. "In some places people are going to be displaced for months because they've lost everything."

The rising toll makes Winston the deadliest cyclone to ever hit Fiji, according to the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, which said the previous worst was cyclone Eric in 1993.

"We haven't been able to make contact with all parts of Fiji, although with the assistance of the New Zealand Air Force we've managed to do aerial inspections across almost all of the islands," Perrin added.

"There's considerable damage of course across the top of the main island (Viti Levu) and the island of Koro, which took pretty much a direct hit." The New Zealand Air Force photographs show entire villages flattened by the first category five storm to hit Fiji.

 

Many homes were reduced to piles of kindling, with roofing and furniture strewn about by winds that were strong enough to strip leaves and branches from trees. In one image a lone man stands on the tin roof of his ruined home, apparently waving both arms at the military plane as it passes overhead.

"The images emerging from early aerial assessments of affected areas are truly heartbreaking, leaving little doubt about the ferocity of this cyclone," said the UN's Fiji coordinator Osnat Lubrani.

"It is clear from these catastrophic impacts that Fiji is facing a long road to recovery." Power is gradually being restored in the main centres and roads cleared of felled trees. The international airport at Nadi also reopened yesterday, allowing international tourists caught up in the disaster to return home. 

AFP

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